Crash victims still seeking justice
While nearly four years have passed since the Chatsworth Metrolink disaster, victims of the crash have not given up their fight for justice—if not for themselves, then for those who may stand in their place in the future.
“For me, I’ve moved on, but I’m in the fight to change this for other victims and so people don’t have to go through this again,” said Simi Valley resident Carolyn Rambo, who was riding in the third car of Metrolink train 111 and sustained serious injuries in the September 2008 crash.
To that end, Rambo organized a July 27 meeting at the Simi Valley Library for victims to discuss their issues with U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s field representative Molly O’Brien.
Victims had invited members of the media to attend, but the senator’s office ultimately shut reporters out of the hour-long discussion. Before and after the meeting, however, victims spoke with the media.
Specifically, they are asking that Veolia Environnement, the employer of the engineer who caused the collision, pay the additional funds needed by those who are continuing to deal with the impacts of life-altering injuries and emotional trauma.
In addition, they want Congress to amend the liability cap placed on passenger rail accidents.
“(Congress should) do the right thing—get Veolia to the table to write a $150-million check and change the cap amount so people don’t have to go through this again,” Rambo said.
Those affected by the collision said local lawmakers, including Feinstein, have been responsive to victims and supportive of the calls for Veolia to fully compensate survivors.
Still, victims said, they are left with an overall feeling that their lives, their injuries and their losses don’t matter because nothing has changed.
“Out of sight, out of mind— for them. But we’re thinking about it every day,” said Simi resident Jenny Fuller, whose husband Walt died in the crash.
“We feel very unheard,” she added. “We feel like the forgotten tragedy.”
Twenty-four passengers were killed and more than 130 were injured in the crash. Of those killed, 21 were Ventura County residents, including 10 from Simi Valley, four from Moorpark, three from Camarillo and two from Thousand Oaks.
Connex Railroad LLC, a subsidiary of French conglomerate Veolia, is the company that hired engineer Robert Sanchez, who was found to be texting on his cellphone when he ran a red light and collided with a Union Pacific freight train outside Chatsworth on Sept. 12, 2008.
Nearly 130 claims totaling about $450 million were filed following the crash.
However, a 1997 federal law caps the maximum liability for passenger rail accidents at $200 million. Connex/Veolia and Southern California Metrolink, the train operator, established a fund in that amount in August 2010.
Legislators joined community members in calling for Veolia to give more, but the company refused. U.S. Rep. Elton Gallegly, who represents the cities most affected, introduced legislation to raise the cap, but the bill never got out of committee.
In July 2011, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Peter Lichtman determined the final award amounts for each plaintiff. At the time he said the total damages exceeded the cap by $120 to $150 million and that if a jury tried each case separately the total amount awarded could be in excess of $350 million.
“His hands were tied by the cap amount,” Rambo said. “He took a look at the facts in front of him case by case and said this is what I can do with $200 million . . . but this case is worth $150 million more.”
Simi resident Frank Kohler, 66, called the cap “a joke.” He was riding in the second train car on the top level and was thrown into a bulkhead, sustaining severe injuries and requiring months of physical therapy.
His attorney asked for $1.8 million; Kohler got $600,000.
Kohler was unable to return to his job as a critical care registered nurse after the crash and is now on Social Security, which he described as “miniscule.” After paying attorney’s fees and insurance costs, he has about $120,000 of his award left.
“(I’m left with) broken dreams. I could have better dreams if things were different,” Kohler said. “I’m struggling all the time.”
This is a common story among the victims: lives ruined, dreams shattered. People unable to work again and shouldered with thousands or even millions of dollars in medical bills.
Simi resident Patty Galtress said she’s grateful she survived the crash but she has a lot of fear for the future.
“My life is totally changed. I’m afraid that I’m not going to be able to survive,” said the 58-yearold, who received a “fraction” of the $1 million her attorney sought and now relies on permanent disability and Social Security. “I’ve lost my livelihood (and) I’m still a relatively young woman.”
If the federal cap included a gross negligence clause, there would have been the opportunity for the case to go to trial and the damage liability limit lifted since the National Transportation Safety Board found the engineer negligent.
And that is what the victims want. Even though it would likely not result in their getting the additional funds they believe they deserve, they are hopeful that a bill will be reintroduced amending the cap to increase the maximum liability amount per a cost-of-living adjustment and to include the gross negligence clause.
While just 16 people attended last week’s meeting, Camarillo resident Jeanette Noble said there are many more “frustrated” and “fed up” people who feel the same but didn’t attend—partly because such meetings bring back difficult emotions and partly because they no longer believe anything will be done to help them.
“It’s excruciatingly painful,” said Noble, whose 75-year-old father, Dennis Arnold, died in the crash. “Words cannot express what this has done to my spirit and my faith in my country that is supposed to represent the people, not the corporate well-being.”
Still, Noble fights on. As she left the meeting, she said the group will have to wait and see if this time their efforts were effective.
“I hope this is not just another dog-and-pony show just to appease the people.”